Agents of Social Control

To understand social control is to not only distinguish its purpose but also the means through which it is achieved. Social control can take two different, though related, forms: externalized and internalized. The individual experiences constant contact from outside forces that influence their behavior—even before they are born. These outside forces are known as “agents of social control” that are roles, positions, and institutions which “provide positive models for how to do something” (Clemens and Cook 445) as well as what is right, or normal. Although there are several agents of social control, we will examine the forces of Politics, Religion, and Education.

Externalized control

Externalized control enforces socially appropriate behavior through outside agents such as the judicial system, priests, professors, politicians, police officers, etc., in order to “constrain action, define opportunity, and facilitate patterns of interaction” (Clemens and Cook 445).

Internalized control

Internalized control is the process by which an individual controls their own behavior through conformity to norms or standards. As a chronological consequence to externalized control, individuals voluntarily conform to social expectations because it is what they believe is the right thing to do, otherwise known as enculturation—the process by which a person acquires the values, ideas, and other factors of a society. Research suggests that social control is attained, though not exclusively, through politics, religion, and education.


Politics is the response to natural social living in which disputes and problems arise that call for attention and resolution, an element of social control that refers to the cultural norms, ideas and values that moderate how people interact with each other in an orderly fashion. Politics can be identified as a form of externalized control by, though not exclusively, large-scale institutions and political leaders. The institution of Congress has the power to declare war, raise armies, coin money, make rules for the government, etc.—all of which constitute control because they directly affect society as a whole by deciding on the outcome of world issues and the status of the economy. Political leaders such as the President of the United States have the advantage of influencing others because of their authoritative position, ability to persuade, and have the power to appoint Officers of the United States like ambassadors and public ministers, make treaties with other nations, and veto a bill. These powers also constitute control as they affect society by deciding who it is led by and what it is limited to. Clemens and Cook observe that “political scientists have tended to adopt this sense of institution as external constraint, as a schema massively embedded in resources for social control” (445). The intent of these institutions and leaders is to regulate a society that perverse itself and is not prone to conflict or “some sort of ex- ogenous shock that disrupts an established order” (Clemens and Cook 442). As humans are born into and enculturated into this system of governance they intrinsically believe that what is done or what decision is made must be right—they do what the political bodies want them to do.


Conformity and social control is achieved not only with politics; society has long been moderated by religion, a system which provides society with guidance and direction for human behavior, whether they are explicit and formal or implicit and informal. Religion moderates society in many different ways, in the form of both externalized control and internalized control: it instills fear, establishes unity among individuals, enforces adherence to law and authority, and avoidance of immoral behavior. Welch, Tittle and Grasmick observe “religious individuals are constrained toward obedience by fear of supernatural consequences that might be experienced while alive or anticipated for the afterlife” (1605). Religion affects society in more ways than establishing fear in order to create conformity; it provides a sense of shared identity among individuals, creating a collective conscience that enforces social control in that it creates a stronger sense of one’s own beliefs. Welch, Tittle, and Grasmick also realize that “religious experience brings people together within networks of believers who mutually exercise informal social control and whose collective activities reduce the opportunities for misbehavior” (1605), or rather, the “group mind” creates a stronger force of control. Misbehavior can be defined as anything deemed immoral, such as defying law and authority. Some of the explicit rules of different religions state that this behavior is a violation to its nature, further enforcing a sense of conformity by emphasizing that defying the law is an act of individual gratification, that “ low self-control is, for all intents and purposes, the individual-level cause of crime” (Welch, Tittle and Grasmick 1606). The constitution of rules that religion provides establishes social control in that it defines what is ‘morally’ wrong in terms of obeying and defying authority. Religion extends to avoidance of immoral behavior much like it expresses the importance of adhering to the law; in many religions, immoral behavior can be exemplified as sexual misconduct, drug use, etc.—all of which challenge the stability of a harmoniously living society. Sexual misconduct, such as premarital sex, could theoretically lead to over population and consequently loss of order. Drug use clouds the individual’s judgment, generating behavior such as violence that would disrupt a smoothly flowing society. With these two examples, religion both explicates and implicates the guidelines to behaving morally.


While politics and religion both heavily enforce social control, there is a third median through which order is maintained: education. This factor can be identified as a form of internalized control, and it has proven to contribute to social order by self-control and power. A well-educated individual is more informed on the nature of society, how it works, and the relation between it and their own behavior. Education can be reasonably defined “as one of the potentially important socioeconomic conditions that increase personal control” (Schieman and Plickert 154). In other words, education instills a sense of self-control in individuals, decreasing the opportunity for misbehavior or crime and instead encouraging conformity. In relation the ability to self-control that accompanies an education, individuals increasingly obtain more power in the sense that they “are more likely to participate in the labor force, have higher levels of occupational status, achieve higher levels of earnings and wealth, and experience a faster ascendancy through the occupational ranks” (Schieman and Plickert 155) and “tend to enjoy greater schedule control, greater job authority, and more challenging, interesting, and enriching work” (Schieman and Plickert 156). The well-educated reap the benefits of better opportunities and rewards that allow them a better grasp of self-control and to secure a place in society that gives them power over different aspects of their lives. While this is essentially an individual’s advantage, it is just as so for society as a whole; education divides people into the different classes that make up the web of socioeconomic status, authority, occupational status, etc., that heavily influence the level of over-all control in a society.

Like all species, humans cannot maintain social harmony without some system of governance; it is imperative that human society preserve and restrain itself in order to maintain order. It is intended to secure that preservation by ensuring a smooth-flowing society and approaching a variety of issues such as social integration, law creation and enforcement, punishment, and establishment of norms and rules. Social control appears in two forms: externalized and internalized, through agents such as priests, police officers, professors, etc.s; while the first refers to those outside forces which influence an individual by enforcing socially appropriate behavior, the second is a chronological consequence to the first that refers to an individual controlling their own behavior and conforming to social expectations because it’s what they believe to be ‘right’ or ‘normal.’ The first three medians of control, politics, is the web of cultural norms, ideas, and values that regulate how individuals interact with each other. Politics is a governing entity that, more often than not, consummates control over society by both large-scale institutions and political leaders. The second of the three medians, religion, provides society with guidance and rules for human behavior through both externalized and internalized control while implementing control through fear, unity, adherence to law, and avoidance of immoral behavior. The third median, education, achieves social order through internalized control by instilling a sense of self control in individuals, encouraging conformity and decreasing the opportunity for misconduct that would challenge the state of a rational, well-ordered society. Education also allows an individual to achieve power through things like occupational status, wealth, job authority, etc. Understanding social control means realizing that its purpose is to ensure a society that dwells in an orderly and beneficial manner, and that it is achieved by implementing the tools of politics: institutions and political leaders; religion: fear, unity, adherence to law, and avoidance of immoral behavior; and education: self-control and power.

Works Cited

Clemens, Elisabeth S. and James M. Cook. Politics and Institutionalism: Explaining Durability and Change. Annual Review of Sociology. Vol. 25, (1999), pp. 441-466

Shieman, Scott and Gabriele Plickert. How Knowledge is Power: Education and the Sense of Control. Social Forces, Volume 87, Number 1, September 2008, pp. 153-183

Welch, Michael R., Charles R. Tittle, and Harold G. Grasmick. Christian Religiosity, Self-Control and Social Conformity. Social Forces. Volume 84, Number 3, March 2006, pp. 1605-1623.

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